The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra marks the feature debut of South Korean filmmaker Park Syeyoung. Beyond that it’s a little hard to describe, but I’m going to give it a try.
We begin with a Korean couple sitting on a mattress, having an argument. Not a small argument, either – no, this is a breakup – tightly wound, quietly furious. She even threatens to kill him. The couple split. A lesser movie would follow them. But no. This movie follows the mattress.
As periodic on-screen countdowns structure the film around a mysterious upcoming birth, the film follows the life of the mattress – or, more specifically, a patch of mold on the mattress – as it slowly grows into a creature that gnaws on the vertebrae of a series of sad humans who lie on it. Bemoaning the government? Dying from cancer? Having an argument with your lover? Break up, get chomped.
The movie takes on a sort of sleepy portmanteau quality, as we witness this series of (mostly) unhappy people encounter and use the mattress, wrestle with a deep melancholy and alienation, and get bitten. But what is going to be born, when all the biting is done?
So The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is a sort of grotty-beautiful slow-cinema creature feature, as if Tsai Ming-Liang and Lou Ye teamed up to make a cross between Possession and Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. This is a movie filled with great loneliness and beauty, aching over lost love and feeding the monster of despair that grows in its aftermath, unless the mourning becomes beautifully apocalyptic. If you can tune into its wavelength, this is one of the strangest, most transcendent films of the year.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra played at the Fantasia International Film Festival on 22 and 26 July.